After her second child was born, Blue Island mom Jane Blew Healy got a Christmas gift that changed her life—a new two-wheeler with a bike trailer attachment. After the bows were discarded, she packed her two kids into the comfortable, insulated coach for a test ride. Within minutes, the former bicycle enthusiast was reintroduced to the joys of bicycling. Sure, it’s environmentally friendly, but more importantly, cycling made her kids kick back and smile.
"The transition from one to two children was challenging for me," says Blew Healy, a former biology teacher who now has three kids, Will, 9, Katie, 7, and Genevieve, 3. "It was hard getting anything done, and getting out of the house was a chore—two kids schlepped into their coats and car seats was a drag. That day [when I was riding] there was snow on the ground and I thought wow, what a sense of freedom this is. I thought it was much easier putting them in the bike trailer than bundling them up and putting them in a car seat."
In short order, Blew Healy settled back into the spokes of her new lifestyle by getting very active in cycling. As a member of her local school board, she launched a Safe Routes to School program in her hometown. Pushing into second gear, she became involved with two urban cycling groups, Critical Mass and Cycling Sisters, and started the Blue Island Bike Club. In her spare time, she lobbied locals for the installation of bike racks and has served on the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation board. She also works with Cigdem Tunar, fellow mom and founder of Cycling Sisters, a cyber support group that encourages women to get more involved in bicycling. As a team, they offer family cycling and safety classes.
Through their biking adventures, the Healy kids have gotten to known their neighborhood as well as the sights, sounds and scents of Chicago.
"Since my husband is a teacher and off in the summer, we go down every week to a museum, take a bike ride and do a picnic or go to dinner," Blew Healy says.
However, it has been her monthly Critical Mass rides with her young family that have graduated the foursome to pedaling Chicago’s parks and neighborhoods with confidence.
In contrast to Blew Healy, who began bicycling young, Tunar grew up without a car or bicycle in Turkey, and once stateside, didn’t learn to ride a bike until age 30. Although Tunar does drive, she prefers to bicycle whenever possible for environmental reasons. Year-round, the working, single mom from Mt. Prospect totes her 3-year-old daughter, Maya, to parks, preschool and into nature for trail rides.
"I’d like my kid to grow up interacting with the birds, the scents of trees and flowers and all the natural sounds of the world around her," Tunar says. "I don’t want her to get used to only going places in the car when there is always bicycle transportation. It is part of what we do for the environment."
Bicycles built for two
For kids ages 5 to 9, Blew Healy and Tunar suggest bicycling families consider buying a trailer cycle, which allows young children to pedal but prevents them from straying away or lurching into traffic.
A trailer bike is also a great way to snag some quiet time with a kid. Blew Healy frequently takes her son, Will, because he often feels left out in a sandwich of sisters.
"He and I will go for a bike ride, do fun things and talk," she says.
Especially for kids with developmental disabilities, a trail bike attachment, or even a traditional tandem, can make cycling with a parent accessible. But sometimes, it’s still necessary to think outside of the box.
Vicki Morton of Western Springs says her son Andrew, 18, is nonverbal and developmentally disabled, but has always loved to pedal. A few years ago, the Mortons bought a front adjustable and collapsible tandem bike, which allows Vicki or her husband Bill to captain the front.
"Andrew isn’t so handicapped that he can’t sit up straight or hold onto the bike and has enough judgment to know that he has to be holding onto the handle bars all the time," Morton says. "We’ll come back from a 3-mile bike ride and he’ll go get on the exercise bike and just keep going."
As for the logistics of bike riding with kids, Blew Healy offers these suggestions:
"... Always remember to bracket your kids with a parent in front, the other in the back and the kids in the middle," she says. "And for any kid under third grade, you need to be constantly talking to them [about their surroundings]."
Trails to ride
Jane Blew Healy and Cigdem Tunar’s favorite family rides hug old railroad tracks, run along rivers and canals and snake through local forest preserves. Here are their top picks:
Old Plank Road Trail. An asphalt hiking and biking trail built on an abandoned railroad bed, this trail runs from Lake Station, Ind., to Joliet. This is a good one for small children since it is pretty flat and has lots of nature to observe. There’s even an ice cream shop at the end.
North Branch Trail. You may want to pack a lunch and ride to the Chicago Botanic Garden or to one of the picnic groves along the trail. This trail starts at Caldwell and Devon avenues in Chicago and continues north about 20 miles to Lake County.
Waterfall Glen. This gravel path is out by Argonne Lab and is great for mountain bike riding. However, only trails 8 feet wide or wider are open to bikes riders. The trail is a little hilly and not paved, so don’t take kids under age 6.
Major Taylor Trail. This Chicago trail runs from 83rd Street north of Beverly into the Calumet Park/Pullman area. It bottoms out at Whistler Woods near the Cal Sag Canal.
Centennial and I & M Canal Bicycle Trail. Located in southwestern Cook County, this paved bicycle trail is within the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor, the first national park of its kind. The 8.9-mile trail consists of three sections: two 3.3-mile loops and a 2.3-mile section that connects the two. For those driving to the area, parking is available in the Forest Preserve District parking lot below Willow Springs Road.
Salt Creek Bicycle Trail. You can literally take this trail to Brookfield Zoo. Although you have to go down some side streets at the end, it is only about 6.6 miles through a forest preserve and along the banks of Salt Creek. The trail starts in Bemis Woods South and continues east to Brookfield Woods, directly across from the Brookfield Zoo.
Tinley Creek Bicycle Trail. This is a very nice ride and has some serious hills, so it’s great for older kids. In the summer, parts of the 13.7-mile-long trail are completely shaded. For those driving to the northern portions of the trail, Yankee Woods and Midlothian Reservoir provide parking and access to 9.77 miles of the trail, including a 3.17-mile loop around the George W. Dunne National Golf Course. For those driving to the southern portion, parking and access to a 3.6-mile loop is available off both Vollmer and Flossmoor roads.
Illinois Prairie Path. Built in the 1960s on the right-of-way once occupied by the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railroad, the Prairie Path was the first "rail-to-trail" conversion of its kind in the country. It stretches 61 miles through Cook, DuPage and Kane counties and arcs through residential areas, bustling business districts and forest preserves.